Cold Wise Man


George Kennan

From The New Yorker:

Kennan thought that Americans were shallow, materialistic, and self-centered—he had the attitude of a typical mid-century European—and the more he saw of them the less fond of them he grew. “You have despaired of yourself,” he wrote in his diary after a visit to Chicago; “now despair of your country!” He had a special distaste for what he called “the Latin-American fringe”—Florida, Texas, and California. “Before us stretches the whole great Pacific Coast,” he wrote in the diary on a plane trip West, “and my only thought, as we approach it, is: throughout the length and breadth of it not one single thing of any importance is being said or done.”

He was firmly anti-majoritarian, not only in foreign affairs, where he considered public opinion a menace, but in governmental decision-making generally. “I hate the rough and tumble of our political life,” he wrote, in 1935, to a sister, Jeanette, to whom he was close. “I hate democracy; I hate the press. . . . I hate the ‘peepul’; I have become clearly un-American.” In the draft of an unfinished book, begun in the nineteen-thirties, he advocated restricting the vote to white males, and other measures designed to create government by an élite.

When he imagined the day the Iron Curtain lifted, a day that his own policy recommendations were intended to bring about, he dreaded what would happen to the Russians after being exposed to “the wind of material plenty” and its “debilitating and insidious breath.” Although he long advocated the reunification of Germany, he took little satisfaction when it happened. It was just the result, he thought, of agitation by young East Germans motivated by the hope of “getting better jobs, making more money, and bathing in the fleshpots of the West.” He wondered whether this was what we had really wanted when we set out, more than forty years before, to wage a Cold War.

Yet he is commonly regarded as the wisest of the Wise Men. That was the name, semi-facetious, that Lyndon Johnson’s national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, gave to the members of the old Cold War foreign-policy establishment whom Johnson called upon, long after their time in office had passed, to help extricate his Administration from the quagmire in which it was eventually consumed, Vietnam.

“Getting Real”, Louis Menand, The New Yorker